Alberta Agriculture’s Blue Book Now Available

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One of the most widely requested publications from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) is the Crop Protection publication, also known as the “Blue Book” in industry circles. Revised annually, the Blue Book includes the most comprehensive and up-to-date information on crop protection products.

“An important part of the annual update includes newly registered pesticide products,” says Mark Cutts, co-editor of Crop Protection 2018 and crop specialist at the Alberta Ag-Info Centre. “This year’s edition includes new additions to the four main pesticide types: herbicides, insecticides, seed treatments, and foliar fungicides. In addition to including new products, previously registered products are updated. Significant changes in some products, crops covered, and usage instructions give producers more options than ever.”

“For 2018, foliar fungicides is the pesticide type with the most new registrations, continuing the trend seen in recent years of significant growth in registered foliar fungicide products,” mentions Cutts. The new fungicides are registered for use on canola, cereals crops, pulse crops, and potatoes.

There are limited new registrations for seed treatments and insecticides. One new seed treatment will be available in 2018, and it is registered on a variety of cereal crops. Newly registered insecticides are available for use on cereal crops, oilseed crops, and potatoes.

“New herbicide registrations include products that can be used in pre-seed applications or in-crop applications,” adds Cutts. “Pre-seed herbicides are registered for use ahead of seeding wheat or on fallow acres. New in-crop herbicide products are registered for use on wheat.”

When using pesticides, it is important to be aware of pesticide resistance. It is recommended that pesticide products be selected based on chemical group and active ingredient. All pesticide products presented in the Blue Book have their chemical group and active ingredient listed. By using this information, the risk of developing pesticide resistance can be reduced.

A hard copy of the publication can be had for $12 by calling 1-800-292-5697 or ordering online www.agriculture.alberta.ca/blue.

OR download a free copy.

Monitor for Insect Pests this Growing Season

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Pea leaf weevil and feeding damage on field pea. (Photo: Shelley Barkley, AAF)

Specialists at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AF) are working to have fields predetermined for the 2018 insect survey season and are looking for assistance from agrologists and producers across Alberta.

This year, the survey teams would like to check pea and wheat fields. They will survey for pea leaf weevil in late spring and survey for wheat midge and wheat stem sawfly in the fall after harvest.

“In addition to the rest of the province, we are looking for pea fields up into the Peace Country because the pea leaf weevil has been confirmed into that area, and we want to expand our survey there,” says Scott Meers, insect management specialist with AF. “We are looking for fields that producers would be happy to have us check. For allowing us on their fields, we will provide those producers with a report of the survey results.”

Meers would also like to increase in the number of bertha army worm traps in Alberta. “We are trying to get four to five traps per county across the province. If you are interested, we will hook you up with all the materials you will need.”

For agrologists and producers who have monitored for the bertha army worm adults in the past, now is a good time to check those traps to see if they need to be repaired or replaced. “They are plastic, and plastic in the wind and sunshine tends to break down after time. Let us know if they need to be upgraded or replaced,” adds Meers.

For more information about monitoring for the upcoming growing season or replacing traps, contact Shelley Barkley at [email protected].

Wind Farms Positively Impact Crops, U.S. Study Says

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Photo: Janet Kanters

Iowa State University researchers have found that wind turbines located in agricultural fields are a plus for the crops growing around them.

The overall effects on crops growing in wind farms appear to be positive said Gene Takle, Iowa State agronomy professor. He has led a team of plant and soil scientist along with extension specialists who have been looking into the effects since 2009.

They started their work after seeing more wind farms and turbines pop up around the state. The new land use was positive for the landowners where they were located, but the researchers wondered if it was the same for the farmers growing crops.

“It’s unusual because we’re continuing the previous land use and we’re adding another,” Takle says. “We’re sort of double-cropping because these can be thought of two forms of energy production. The Chinese do this when they plant soybeans in between horticultural crops. We’re planting turbines.”

If the turbines change the microclimate for corn and soybeans, the team wanted to learn if it is a big enough change to be measured and the potential impacts.

Takle says wind blowing across a corn or soybean field without turbines creates a certain turbulence that carries moisture from the transpiring crop, which rises into the atmosphere and pulls down cooler, drier air. At night the wind is calmer and the land cools.

Turbines take some of the wind energy, slowing it down but increasing its turbulence so it interacts with the crop more, possibly increasing evaporation from the crop or moving carbon dioxide down into the crop.

“The biggest changes are at night and that’s because during the day there’s a lot of chaotic turbulence, just because the sun is heating the surface and the wind is gusty,” Takle says. “At night when it gets pretty calm, the crop cools down and if it’s a humid night you start to get dew formation. If you add the turbines, it looks a little more like the daytime. So the dew formation is delayed and it may start to evaporate sooner.”

Since fungus and mold like a wet environment, the shorter the wet period makes it less favorable for the growth of those potential pathogens. In the fall, the shorter wet period could speed up harvesting because farmers typically have to wait for soybeans to dry in the morning.

Another factor is that turbines bring warmer air down to interact with the cool air near the surface. Throughout the wind farm, the surface is a little bit warmer which inhibits dew formation.”

“Satellites can measure surface temperatures and you can see little dots across the state of Iowa and locate every wind farm because they’re slightly warmer than the surrounding area. So we know it has an effect that’s large enough to be seen there,” he says.

Another plus is the air pressure fluctuation measured around wind turbines.

Takle says there is a lot of carbon dioxide in the top few feet of soil — as much as two or three times what is in the air. The movement of air by the turbines pumps air down, and the movement draws carbon dioxide out of the soil so more would be available to the plant for photosynthesis.

The air moving down also creates more plant movement, which increases sunlight penetrating the dense crop canopy.

On the negative side is the tendency of higher temperatures occurring at night in wind farms.

Considering corn, during the day it’s taking in solar energy and carbon dioxide to make plant material. At night it cools down and gives back some of the carbon dioxide, and it gives up more if it’s warmer.

“So the night time warming of the turbines is not a totally good thing,” he says. “Night time temps have been going up over the last 40 years and are becoming a limiting factor for crop yields.”

But overall crops grown in wind farms seem to benefit.

“So there are three ways the crop is being ‘fertilized’ from either the air or from the soil or from increased photosynthesis. We measured increased carbon dioxide uptake during the day, but an increased respiration at night,” he says. “But over the course of the day there was more uptake. So as far as the impact of the turbines on the carbon dioxide processes and the photosynthesis process in the near vicinity of the turbines it’s a net gain.”

His team would like to look at the result of wind movement through a farm as it slows and tends to move up, which could create clouds if the air is warm and moist, and potentially rain.

“Are wind farms a preferential location for cloud formation or something that’s going to provide more rain in an area beyond the wind farm? We don’t know, we have some preliminary measurements that suggest that this is a real effect. Theoretically, you say yes there should be an effect, but is it large enough to be measured or to be important?” Takle asks.

A New Day in Dust Reduction

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As farmers prepare for spring planting, a feeling of anticipation hangs in the air.

What doesn’t hang in the air? Dust-off from seed treatments.

With an increased focus on pollinator health, seed and seed treatment providers, equipment manufacturers and other industry representatives continue to work together to reduce the amount of dust-off that occurs when handling treated seed.

“Equipment manufacturers like John Deere and crop input companies like Syngenta need to collaborate to meet farmers’ evolving needs,” says Nick Tindall, senior director of government and industry relations for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

“The whole industry plays an important role when it comes to controlling dust-off,” adds Ravi Ramachandran, head of the Syngenta North America Seedcare Institute in Stanton, Minnesota.

The goal is efficiency and safety for both farmers and pollinators.

“Seed treatments pose a minimal risk to pollinators if handled correctly and if stewardship practices are followed. Reducing dust-off is very important not only for the environment but also for product efficacy and minimizing operator exposure,” says Sandy Baker, seedcare application lead, Syngenta.

Dust Levels

Seed applied technologies are a crucial pest management tool in modern agriculture and it’s important to have perspective on the actual amount of chemical-related dust that occurs during planting.

“We do follow the European Seed Association established dust-off limits for the main crops as part of our quality assurance program. These limits can be as low as 0.75 grams dust per 100,000 seeds,” says Baker.

Outsiders may envision clouds of chemicals when thinking about dust off, but that’s not accurate.

“The actual amount of dust off we’re talking about is quite small. I’ve seen anti-pesticide activists use videos showing a planter in action and highlight clouds of dust. However, those clouds are plain dirt kicked up by tires and don’t have active ingredients in them,” Tindall says.

Ravi Ramachandran

In reality, seed treatments are used at very low rates, and in certain crops help eliminate an early foliar insecticide application, resulting in both environmental and economic benefits.

“By investing in formulation innovation and with the expertise from the application specialists at the Seedcare Institute, we are able to deliver high performing, safer to handle products for our growers. Less dust-off means the correct dose of product on the seed and reduced operator exposure,” Ramachandran says.

It also means less potential impact to nearby pollinators, and while it’s always important to communicate planting activities with beekeepers, reducing dust-off is another safeguard toward honey bee health.

Factors to Consider

The level of dust that can be generated is linked to the quality of seed treatment products used, how the treatment is applied and the formulation engineering, as well as the level of seed cleaning during processing, moisture level of seeds before treating, and even the environmental conditions at treating.

“At the Seedcare Institute, we develop customized treatment recipes that are tested and calibrated to work across all climatic conditions and through various seed treating equipment,” Ramachandran says.

Once the seed is effectively treated, the equipment itself comes into play.

“We focus on addressing the issue where we have the ability to impact it. That is when the planter is in operation. This is why the industry came together to create an ISO standard to control fugitive dust,” Tindall says.

He believes the ISO standard to control fugitive dust is an impressive example of the industry taking voluntary, proactive steps to address an environmental concern.

“The process involved several manufacturers from across the globe. Our members spent time and resources to change the way they do things to follow the new standard. These adjustments were in place for the 2017 planting season and will have an even greater effect for this year’s planting season,” Tindall says.

Improvements

“We’ve been working with the seed and crop protection companies on this topic since 2009 in a variety of ways,” says Tindall. “In addition to the sharing of information and expertise, equipment manufacturers helped in the development of an alternative fluency agent to replace talc and graphite by testing it in the lab and during field trials to ensure it was compatible with existing equipment technologies.”

Baker and Ramachandran agree the progress has been significant.

Another approach to reducing dust-off from treated seeds is by incorporating dust reducing agents like polymers into the slurry mix when treating seeds.

“At the Seedcare Institute, we test and work with the polymer industry to make sure the best products are used in treatment recipes,” Ramachandran says.

Many times, treated seeds actually release less dust-off compared to untreated seeds due to the binding characteristics of the polymers used in the recipes.

Extensive research is carried out to select a specific polymer for a given crop and treatment recipe. “Recent industry innovations include development of engineered seed lubricants that not only reduce dust off from treated seeds by up to 90 per cent, but are also applied at a fraction of the traditional lubricant rates. Traditional lubricants like talc and talc-graphite blends are used up to one cup per unit while the new synthetic lubricants are recommended at one or two teaspoons per unit,” Baker says.

Precision Planting

On the equipment side, improvements are focused on what happens to any amount of dust as seed flows through the planter while it’s in the field.

Nick Tindall

“For example, the ISO standard states that the fan exhaust should be half a metre off the ground when in planting position, and it also addresses air speed,” Tindall says.

The potential for dust-off comes from the actual process of planting seed with vacuum metre systems, in which the planters use pressure differential to drive seeds to the ground. This is where the potential impact to nearby pollinators has been most scrutinized.

However, it doesn’t mean there will be dust-off issues at this point in the process.

“That only happens if you have non-optimized recipes, low quality formulations and poorly cleaned seeds during processing, as well as the lack of seed lubricants during planting to reduce friction on the seeds surface,” Ramachandran says.

It is also important to use the right dose of seed lubricants for planting.

“Overuse of seed lubricants could result in increased dust during planting. Applying at the manufacturer recommended rates will result in not only good seed singulation but also minimal dust-off at planting,” Baker says.

There are other benefits to applying products at the recommended rates, too, like a cost savings.

“Farmers aren’t in the habit of wasting money on inputs. No one benefits when active ingredients miss their mark,” Tindall says. “Beyond economic concerns, seed treatments represent the most environmentally friendly way to use crop protection products, because their application is so finely targeted.”

It’s about sustainability.

“Our customers care a great deal about the health of their ecosystems, as do we. After all, all of our livelihoods depend on it. Doing our part to safeguard pollinator health is a key part of that and a responsibility we take seriously,” Tindall says.

Riding the Western Soybean Wave

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Soybeans were once unheard on the Prairies. Now, they’re marching west from Manitoba to Alberta, with no end to acreage increase in sight.

Here’s an easy riddle: What was unheard of in Manitoba a few years ago, now is found everywhere and has moved well beyond Manitoba in a seemingly unstoppable westward domination of Canadian fields?

The answer is soybeans.

Truly a force to be reckoned with, soybeans are now being grown in huge amounts across Saskatchewan and have started to be grown in Alberta as well. To find out exactly how much acreage has expanded, how the development of locally-adapted varieties is going and where the future of soybeans in the west is headed, we checked in with three experts, including Glenda Clezy, an agronomy specialist with the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers (SPG).

Clezy says it was around 2012 that the crop really started to increase significantly in acreage in Western Canada. She points to Statistics Canada data that shows a strong jump in acreage in Manitoba from last year to this year (2.3 million acres in 2017 up from about 1.6 million in 2016), and a tremendous leap over the same time period in Saskatchewan (850,000 in 2017, more than three-and-a-half times the 240,000 acres grown in 2016).

Alberta is not currently included in the data due to low acreage, nor in Statistics Canada’s June 2017 crop report, which states that Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec and Saskatchewan account for 99 per cent of national total soybean production, and that all of these provinces reached record high soybean acreages this year.

“The number of varieties available to growers is on the rise as well,” Clezy explains, “and is likely a key factor in the increase in acres as more varieties are available that are shorter-season and have the potential to reduce risk for producers. Currently there are 48 varieties in the variety trials in Saskatchewan. These varieties range from 006 to 0006 maturity groups.”

Trials in Manitoba involve similar varieties, as well as some that are later-maturing.

Clezy took a look at the websites for companies that are currently selling soybean varieties in Western Canada, and reports that there now seem to be more than 90 varieties available in total. However, she notes that not all of these varieties will be suitable for all areas, and farmers in some areas will have a much smaller number of varieties to select from that may be suitable for their locations.

Wilt Billing believes the number of soybean varieties available in Western Canada has easily gone up ten-fold over the last decade. The product line manager for Crop Production Services in Manitoba says that it’s the development of early-maturing varieties that has driven the acreage growth, and that “some companies have been faster to address this than others.”

Elroy Cober, a research scientist in the soybean breeding and genetics division at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) in Ottawa, agrees that maturity is a requirement for reliable production in the Prairies. “Growers need to select lines that reliably mature,” he advises, “while recognizing they may give up a little yield in years when there is a long open fall.”

Over the last 15 years or so, Cober has been testing his early-maturing soybean lines with staff at the AAFC station in Morden, Man. He notes that while the growing season in that area is a “long” season when considering Western Canada as a whole, he’s found “the early half of my breeding material to be adapted to Manitoba.”

Cober has developed a very early-maturing variety, AAC Edward, marketed by SeCan.

“During its testing, it was grown at Saskatoon for a number of years and performed very reliably there,” Cober reports. “It is necessary to test lines in their proposed area of adaptation. Iron deficiency chlorosis is not an issue in Eastern Canada, while it can be a problem with some soils in Manitoba. Local testing will sort out lines that are susceptible.”

Cober is currently testing early-maturing breeding material in Manitoba at AFFC Morden and Portage. He is also collaborating in a pilot project where he is developing populations and sending them to Morden and Saskatoon for selection and testing with the belief that local selection may allow for even better adaptation.

Billing notes that in general, breeding is now shifting towards the development of defensive traits and high-yield potential in the early-maturing varieties. He lists resistance against things like Phytophthora, white mould, and soybean cyst nematode to be among important defensive traits.

Soybeans on Trial in Alberta

In a presentation published in January 2017, crop scientist Francis Larney of AAFC Lethbridge and his colleagues stated that soybean acreage is increasing in Alberta and that they have found the best yields to occur at maturity of 116 to 121 days. They have done one year of study so far. They also conclude:

  • More than 130 days to maturity can lead to risk of frost damage
  • Threshold CHU = 2,200
  • Target yields are now about 3,300 kg/ha (50 bu/ac)
  • Future yields could be pushed to 4,000 kg/ha (60 bu/ac)

The team measured factors such as plant density, days to flowering, plant height at flowering, pods and seeds per plant and so on, and found that narrow rows resulted in lower pod height and more seeds per plant. Higher planting density resulted in slightly faster maturation.

The scientists also looked into whether soybeans could be used to replace dry beans in irrigated rotations, but found dry beans result in a soil N credit 2 to 2.5 times greater than soybeans.

Looking Forward

 In terms of where in the west we might we see soybeans being grown next and how the industry is preparing for that, Clezy points to a few factors.

“The future of soybeans will be dependent on the success that growers have over the next few years, as well as the ongoing release of new varieties that offer higher yields and earlier maturity,” she says. “The weather and the amount of moisture available will also impact the success of soybeans. As varieties continue to develop that are able to mature in fewer number of days, and yield sufficiently to make them a suitable option for more of Western Canada, we will likely continue to see soybean acres increase as well as expand in geography to the north and to the west.”

Cober notes that some growers are trying soybeans in areas such as The Pas, Man., and Edmonton, and he feels it might be a possible to grow soybeans that far north, and he continues to look for new early-maturity genes which might allow for further northern expansion. “While heat-loving soybeans might be able to be grown in the northern Prairies, they need to yield enough to be competitive with cool climate crops,” he notes. “I hope that soybeans might find a place in canola rotations to allow for longer rotations and reduce canola disease pressure.”

 

Blackleg and Clubroot in Canola

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Field with heavy clubroot incidence (note reduced flowering in the foreground). (Photo courtesy S.E. Strelkov, UofA)

Blackleg and clubroot are both serious diseases that are growing in severity across Alberta, but with proper and diligent management by all farmers, they can be effectively controlled.

Blackleg

Blackleg is a fungal canker or dry rot that results in stem girdling and lodging. The disease has been present in canola fields since the 1980s.

Today, the availability and use of canola cultivars with resistance to blackleg has helped to avoid significant damage, notes Michael Harding, a research scientist with Alberta Agriculture and Forestry (AAF). However, it is still very common to see blackleg in canola crops.

When blackleg-infected seed is sown, the seedlings that emerge may be infected with lesions on the seedling leaves or stems.
(Photo courtesy Michael Harding, AAF)

Harding and his colleagues have undertaken recent surveys for blackleg (and stem rot) on Alberta canola. In 2016, they found that of 480 canola fields, 432 of them had blackleg symptoms. Indeed, Harding states “the prevalence of blackleg in Alberta has been measured at 55 to 99 per cent in the six surveys conducted over the past eight years. Prevalence was slightly lower in 2017 compared with 2016, as it was a relatively dry year in comparison.”

Long-term survey trends show the pathogen to be present throughout the province, and Harding does not believe any area or farm should consider itself “blackleg free.” Some fields experience little to no loss due to blackleg while others may have significant disease pressure, and he says economic loss experienced by individual farms depends on their location in the province, local weather and field history, as well as cropping and disease management practices.

“Blackleg is always a risk for canola producers and blackleg management practices should be proactive,” Harding says. “Crop rotation (one host crop every four years) is a very effective way to keep disease pressure from building. The pathogen does not survive in soil without a host. So, once the canola residues are decomposed, there is little to no risk of economically-damaging blackleg pressure originating within that field.”

Harding also notes that genetic resistance in the MR- and R-rated canola cultivars is keeping disease severity very low in most fields, as was seen in the survey data. However, Ralph Lange Team Lead Crop Pathology and Molecular Biology at InnoTech Alberta, notes there are now yearly cases of severe loss in cultivars labelled “resistant,” a significant change from the 1990s and 2000s that indicates the pathogen is adapting.

Lange says there are about eight different blackleg strains in Western Canada, and in Alberta, about 80 per cent of all isolates belong to just three strains.

“We continue to have good resistance genes available, and what’s changed is that we now need to actively manage the crop resistance genes we present to blackleg fungus populations,” he explains. “So, frequent and accurate scouting with excellent record keeping is essential for determining if the genes we’re presenting are working or not. Then, producers need to eliminate the non-functioning resistance genes when selecting which canola cultivar to plant (at least one functioning resistance gene).” This is now much easier, Lange notes, because seed companies are starting to reveal which genes are in which cultivar.

Another tool for blackleg management is fungicides. Harding notes while all certified canola seed is cleaned and treated to make it essentially blackleg-free (although infection can still occur due to spores being released from infected stubble), in high-risk situations during the growing season, foliar fungicides may be applied at the one-to-three leaf stage.

Going forward, Harding says the risk of resistance-building in the pathogen is very real when crop rotation recommendations are ignored, especially in wetter years when blackleg has a better chance to infect and cause disease.

“If genetic resistance were to erode due to selection of virulent pathotypes of the fungus, it would have a devastating impact in areas where genetic resistance was no longer effective,” he notes. “While we are not currently seeing widespread changes in blackleg severity, it has been seen in some individual fields. This is a warning sign that we need to think carefully about crop rotation practices and resistance stewardship in order to stay ahead of blackleg.”

Clubroot

In canola, this soil-borne fungus-like disease causes swellings to form on the roots, ultimately stunting the plant and even causing premature plant death. Infection and severity are supported by warm, moist, acidic soil.

University of Alberta scientists and staff from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry currently conduct yearly clubroot surveys, which began in 2003 when clubroot was first identified in the province. The 2016 survey found 289 new clubroot-infested fields and the 2017 survey another 301.

“What we’ve found is that clubroot is spreading fairly rapidly for a soil-borne plant pathogen, and this seems to be due mainly to the movement of infested soil and machinery,” explains Stephen Strelkov, professor in the faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environment Sciences at the University of Alberta. “We’ve also found significant numbers of spores in wind-blown dust from infested fields which could contribute to local spread.”

There is a continued spread eastward, he adds, with several new infestations recently found near the Saskatchewan border.

“Part of why it often takes a few years for growers to ‘up their game’ when dealing with clubroot is because the impact on yield is often very slight,” notes Dan Orchard, agronomy specialist with the Canola Council of Canada. “It’s almost always found in a patch at the field entrance, and the overall field yield isn’t really affected. But if not managed, that patch will become much, much larger and potentially cause total loss of the entire crop.”

Severe clubroot pulled from infested soil (note wilting of plants in the background).
(Photo courtesy S.E. Strelkov, UofA)

At least 12 new strains of clubroot have been identified in Alberta since 2013, and they are all capable of overcoming the resistance in many clubroot-resistant canola varieties.

“In 2016, these strains were confirmed in over 60 fields in Alberta, and in 2017, we identified another 42 fields with potential resistance issues,” Strelkov notes. “These new strains have likely emerged as a result of cropping of clubroot-resistant canola in short rotation in fields with moderate to severe clubroot infestations.”

Orchard notes while best management strategies make a big difference, they are difficult to deploy. “This would include equipment sanitation, which growers have suggested could be hours and hours per piece of equipment for each field,” he says. “Not cleaning equipment is a risk growers seem to be accepting, although I believe many or most of them make sure equipment from unknown regions or potential clubroot regions is clean before entering their lands, which is a great practice to follow.”

He adds there is evidence around the world and preliminary evidence in Alberta suggesting pH plays a major role in clubroot spread and severity.

“Liming fields could reduce clubroot impact, but it’s another excellent management strategy that’s easier said than done,” Orchard says. “I’m convinced, however, that over the next few years and with the help of new technology, the industry will produce better lime recommendations, better pH mapping, better application techniques, and just a better understanding of lime and the benefits/challenges.”

While he believes genetic resistance is currently the most significant factor in keeping this disease at bay, the fact that new clubroot strains are quickly appearing means growers need to deploy a multi-pronged approach.

“The recipe for success would seem to be liming badly-infested patches and seeding them to a perennial grass until spore loads are manageable, coupled with planting resistant canola varieties and rotating sources of resistance on top of crop rotation.”

Strelkov agrees that with the new strains appearing, it’s unwise to use resistant canola varieties as a sole management strategy. He stresses longer rotations are important, and adds while “sanitation often is not viewed as practical, even steps such as trying to remove large chunks of soil from machinery or working infested fields last can be helpful.”

Eye in the sky

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Jan Zalud from JZAerial collaborated with Chris Neeser in his research work. (Photo courtesy JZAerial/AAF)

The benefits of using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones as crop scouting tools are obvious. They enable farmers to spot problems in the field they didn’t even know they had, often more quickly and easily than traditional scouting methods.

That — coupled with the fact UAVs have dropped dramatically in price in recent years — is why more growers in Alberta are utilizing them to help nurture their crops and improve overall farm management.

 Markus Weber is co-founder of Landview Drones, an Edmonton-based company that sells fixed wing and multi-rotor UAVs and also provides operator training. Since the start of the business in 2015, the vast majority of their customers have been farmers and agronomists, reflecting the rising interest in drone technology in the agriculture sector.

 Weber says his company integrates everything a farmer or agronomist requires in order to operate a drone themselves, rather than hiring a professional UAV service provider.

“We outfit them with everything they need, from the drone itself to the sensors and all the software they need to be able to process the data; and lastly, we would provide the training to be able to do it legally and safely,” he says.

UAVs today are generally easier to operate than ever. Weber notes while some of their farm customers originally bought drones for fun, they later discovered how useful they could be for spotting problems in their fields.

“People often buy them for recreational uses, and then once they start using them, they realize what a great scouting tool it makes and they start using it on their farm,” Weber says.

“Almost without fail, once they get an aerial view of their farm from relatively low altitude, they’re finding out about problems they didn’t know they had.”

Weber says the insights gained from an eye in the sky can help assess general crop health and inform farm management decisions, such as where to spray to best control weeds, insects and disease.

He adds drones are also useful for spotting patterns in the field that could indicate serious issues with farm equipment, such as a problem with a seeder not operating properly that may be causing uneven germination in a field.

 “All these kinds of things that just become plainly visible from the air aren’t as easily visible from the ground,” says Weber.

“If you can discover a problem with your equipment that you can remedy, that’s worth thousands of dollars to a farmer. So that currently is providing the most value.”

Robin Harrison is chief drone pilot for JTS Agrow, a farm input dealership near Bruce, Alta., that also provides UAV services for farmers. He believes time is a big reason why drones are growing in popularity among farmers and agronomists.

“I think that it’s probably a time saver and increases the efficiency of your scouting time,” Harrison says. “You can go out and take a look at a field much more quickly and in much more detail [with a drone] than you can on foot or by just driving by the field.”

Drone Data

Ag drones are capable of producing a lot of data, such as Normalized Difference Vegetation Index or NDVI maps, which can be used to assess variability in crop vigour. But managing vegetative remote sensing data such as this can be a daunting prospect, which is why many growers who want to go beyond simple crop scouting and have their fields mapped for precision ag purposes, such as variable rate input applications, often choose to go the service provider route.

“I think the biggest thing that might scare growers off is the data processing and the technology itself,” says Harrison. They’re not familiar with it necessarily and it might kind of spook them a little bit. They would likely tend to maybe hire somebody like me to do it for them, and then they don’t have to worry about that part.”

Chris Neeser, a weed scientist with the pest surveillance section of Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, has utilized UAVs in some of his research work. He believes those utilizing drones for precision ag need to develop the necessary expertise to be able use the software and interpret the data correctly.

“The technology itself is always changing and developing rapidly,” Neeser says. “There’s still a learning curve associated with using UAVs.”

While he believes drones can perform a very useful role, Neeser stresses the current technology is not yet up to par with what a human scout can do — namely diagnosing a problem after it’s been spotted.

“I would say UAVs are useful for field scouting but they’re not a replacement for boots in the field. You still have to go in there and verify what the images show, because the images do not necessarily provide you with the details you need to make a diagnostic of what’s going on,” he says.

Weber agrees the analytical capabilities of drones may be limited, but feels it likely won’t that much longer due to rapid advances in artificial intelligence and the accelerating pace of sensor development.

“The flight technology has gone way ahead of the ability to produce good data from it. Right now, there are many kinds of maps you can generate with it but none of those really tell you what the problem is in a particular part of the field — they just tell you where there might be a problem,” Weber says.

“I see in the next two to three years that drone sensor and software technology will change drastically through the use of better spectral data and machine learning. True diagnostic maps will make the biggest change in the industry.”

The bitter battle over the world’s most popular insecticides

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Bee populations are declining in many parts of the globe, a worrying sign for the crops and wild plants that rely on these pollinators for their survival. Parasites, disease and shrinking food resources are all prime suspects. But a link to neonics has become a major flashpoint.

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Canola seed: What traits do you need?

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When choosing canola hybrids for 2018, think through the yield, quality and profit achieved over the past few years and consider what factors may have reduced overall profitability. Add notes on harvestability. Then consider how seed traits could help manage any existing and potential challenges, reduce risk and improve profitability.

Seed traits to consider:

Disease resistance. Disease can be a major yield-robber and finding a disease resistance package that matches the situation on the farm can go a long way to improve yields and profitability. An important consideration: Is seed the best way to manage the disease in question? The only way to protect yield in fields that have clubroot is to use a clubroot-resistant variety. With sclerotinia, on the other hand, a well timed fungicide application typically offers good disease control if the hybrid does not have sclerotinia tolerance. Further to that example, even with a sclerotinia-tolerant variety, fungicide is still recommended with high disease pressure.

Herbicide tolerance package. Some farms have rotations or minimum tillage systems that favour specific HT system choices. But is sticking with one HT system hurting profitability in other ways? Consider a few different scenarios to test the current approach. For example, do you have any herbicide-resistant weeds to manage? Are you looking for better canola volunteer control that rotating systems might offer?

Maturity. Is canola harvest always late? If this adds too much stress to the harvest season, earlier maturity might be a high priority.

Lodged canola is a pain to harvest and often has more disease. (Photo CCC)

Lodging resistance. If a few fields this fall were badly lodged and had high levels of sclerotinia stem rot as a result of the compacted canopy, better lodging resistance may be a high priority. A variety with top-level standability might end up yielding more and reducing harvest stress on your farm compared to a variety with higher yield potential but less lodging resistance.

Pod shatter tolerance. If straight combining is part of your system, this trait has proven yield benefits – especially if combining is delayed for any reason. Research has shown while any variety can be straight combined in ideal conditions, pod shatter tolerant hybrids will outperform the others in variable straight-combining conditions. Canola Performance Trials 2017 results will include a comparison of pod shatter tolerance traits.

Yield. Yield potential is obviously very important to profit, but growers cannot realize the last few percentage points of yield from a variety if it’s not well matched to the conditions and farming systems. One approach is to consider first which of the above traits are needed to improve quality, harvestability and disease management, and to match the weed and harvest programs on the farm. From the short list of varieties that meet these needs, pick the one that has the highest yield potential.

Seed cost. Seed with stacked traits tend to cost more per pound. Seed cost is a factor in profitability calculations.

A few scenarios:

Clubroot is in the area. When the disease is confirmed in your community, it will reach your farm eventually (if it hasn’t already). So even if clubroot resistance (CR) didn’t seem worthwhile in the past, it will provide an economic benefit if it keeps the disease at low levels for the long term. The CR trait and the yield benefits it provides will be a top priority in seed decisions on many farms.

Clubroot resistance versus yield. Sometimes the variety with the highest published yields is a clubroot-susceptible variety. Consider the risk of an undetected low level of clubroot increasing to yield-robbing levels if you use a susceptible variety. Is yield potential alone enough? The good news is that many of the new CR varieties are the seed company’s top yielding products now, so choosing a CR variety for yield is a win-win scenario.

Clubroot resistance versus straight-cut performance. Farmers can get pod shatter tolerance and clubroot resistance in the same hybrids now, but if the choice comes down to one or the other for economic and other reasons, when should you give up on pod shatter and go with clubroot resistance? With clubroot present in more areas and with obvious benefits to keeping clubroot down, CR will be the higher priority in more areas heading into 2018.

Blackleg is getting worse. Blackleg-resistant seed has been the top blackleg management tool. But if blackleg seems to be getting worse, rotating to a different source of blackleg resistance should have yield and profit benefits. By scouting for blackleg each harvest season, you can track when this disease becomes an issue.

HT versus blackleg resistance. If blackleg seems to be getting worse but rotating to a different source of blackleg resistance is difficult under the desired herbicide tolerance (HT) system, the grower could ask the seed company for options, take other approaches such as longer rotations, or change the farm cropping plan to work in a different HT system.

Lodging options. Is improved genetic resistance to lodging the best approach for yield and profitability? It could be if other measures, such as lower seeding rates and lower amounts of nitrogen, are less desirable from yield, disease management and harvestability perspectives.

Optimizing Fungicide Applications on Wheat and Barley

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Septoria (speckled leaf blotch) of barley.

Leaf spot fungal diseases can decrease cereal yield by up to 20 per cent or more, as well as diminish kernel weight, and in some cases reduce grade. This, according to Neil Whatley, crop specialist, Alberta Ag Info Centre.

“When disease risk levels are moderate to high, protection of the upper two leaves of a developing wheat plant with a timely in-crop fungicide application prevents significant losses. With barley, it’s essential to protect the upper three leaves,” he says.

Disease risk level increases when weather conditions are favourable for disease development, cereal crops are frequently grown in the same field, the chosen cereal variety is susceptible to leaf diseases, yield potential is good and crop price is high.

Tan spot and septoria leaf blotch are the most common leaf spot fungal diseases in wheat, says Whatley.

“While scald and net blotch most commonly affect barley, fungal diseases like spot blotch affect all cereal crops. These leaf spot pathogens survive on infected straw residue and stubble from cereal crops grown during the previous two to three years in a particular field. A prolonged period of rainfall, fog or heavy dew combined with moderate air temperatures in June and July raises the risk that these pathogens will produce spores and re-infect young, developing cereal plants.”

Although leaf spot diseases can be present during early plant growth, scouting for cereal leaf diseases is especially important prior to, during, and after flag leaf emergence. “The appearance of moderate levels of disease in the lower canopy indicates there is a risk to the upper canopy leaves,” says Whatley. “Under conditions favourable for disease development, leaf spot disease symptoms appear as tiny water soaked or brown or tan spots or lesions on the leaf surfaces of seedlings and tillering cereal plants. Lesions produce spores that act as the disease transfer mechanism. Under prolonged humid weather conditions, the spots become more visible as they expand and blend together. If the weather turns dry in June and July, risk level diminishes as the leaf spot pathogens remain confined to the lower leaves, causing little overall harm. However, as upper leaves emerge on the developing cereal plants, wind or the splashing motion of rain drops transfer spores from the lower canopy, and possibly from old infested crop residue, to the flag and penultimate (the leaf just below the flag) leaves, increasing the risk that key leaves for yield and grain filling may be compromised. A decision must then be made whether or not to protect the upper leaves with a foliar fungicide application.”

Spores that splash or are blown by wind onto the upper leaves will germinate under favourable conditions allowing the pathogens to infect leaf tissues and cause necrotic lesions on leaf surfaces, potentially resulting in significant loss of green leaf area.

“Preventing the loss of green leaf area on the flag and penultimate leaves is the main concern as optimal sunshine on these leaves contributes to over 50 per cent of the cereal crop’s eventual yield. The goal is to apply a foliar fungicide when the flag leaf has just fully emerged if disease risk level is moderate to high,” says Whatley. “As a rule of thumb, 20 per cent per cent disease coverage of the area of the flag leaf results in a 10 per cent yield decrease, so preventing this amount of disease is usually desirable if yield potential is good and grain prices are fair to high. If a fungicide application is made and weather conditions favourable for disease development persist, a second fungicide application may be necessary just after head emergence, and especially where Fusarium head blight is also a concern.”

Spraying too early or spraying too late results in poor disease control. “While the idea of mixing a half rate of fungicide with a late herbicide application may seem convenient, given that the flag and penultimate leaves are not fully formed, this crop management practice doesn’t directly protect the upper canopy leaves and is generally not economical for leaf spot diseases like tan spot, septoria, scald, net blotch and spot blotch,” notes Whatley. “In contrast, if stripe rust is observed early in the growing season, a fungicide application may be needed before flag leaf emergence and then again later at head emergence if risk is high and the variety is susceptible. It’s preferable to prevent leaf spot diseases with a full rate of fungicide at the flag leaf stage or just after head emergence. However, spraying too late, after the disease is well established on the flag and penultimate leaves, is also not economical because significant green leaf area has already been lost and the fungicide doesn’t cure infected leaf tissue, but instead protects healthy leaf tissue.”

Whether fungicide choice is a systemic or a contact mode of action, the fungicide should be applied directly to the leaves that are important for grain filling, i.e. the flag and penultimate leaves.

“Translocation movement of a systemic fungicide is limited to within an individual leaf and does not occur between leaves,” says Whatley. “Leaf spot pathogens can become resistant to a specific fungicide, so if disease pressure is high enough to spray more than once in the same field during the growing season, or during successive years in the same field, rotate fungicide modes of action. Adequate water volumes ensure optimal leaf coverage and, therefore, optimal disease control, so ten gallons of water per acre is generally applied with the fungicide.”